Few historical figures have been slandered more than Machiavelli, his very name having become synonymous with the relentless pursuit of power for its own sake without regard for morality – a deplored practice in contemporary politics.

To argue for a more Machiavellian politics can be seen as a surprising move then, but not only should politics be more Machiavellian, it is in fact unmachiavellian at this moment. In his writings Machiavelli pioneered the idea of the separation between politics and morality. Most think that this means that to him the purpose of politics, that is to say the exercise of power, is power itself.

The historical Machiavelli had a very different purpose though, namely the unification of Italy. The exercise of power was merely a means to realize this. However, in order for this to be effective morality was not to enter the sphere of politics. To be Machiavellian means to have an amoral politics in service to an idealistic purpose. This purpose, in contrary to the means through which it is to be attained, has a normative foundation.

Then how is contemporary politics anti-Machiavellian? First, the purpose it serves has been stripped from a normative dimension. This is also called post-politics, the purportedly non-ideological search for “the best solution” without engaging with the question of what the problem or the desired outcome. Second, the means on which it relies are increasingly being subjected to moralism. Much of policy-making today is given in by an obsessive desire to prevent money and recourses from going towards those who are undeserving. Be they “benefit scroungers”, “economic migrants”, smokers needing health care, “lazy students”, prisoners in reintegration programs and so forth. It is crucial to stress that these undeserving are not so much seen as ineligible as unworthy of enjoying the advantages a public service might bring them.

The result is an envy-fueled downward spiral where public services are either abolished or progressively brought down to a bare minimum. The effects it might have on the core mission of a public service is secondary in this case to the manhunt on the undeserving. It seems that if the need for normativity in politics isn’t satisfied at the level of a purpose citizens will seek for it at the level of the means. Where there is no end to justifies the means all means end up being seen as unjustified.

It is clear what to do for those who see the necessity of public policy: state your purpose and make others state theirs.

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